In this episode of “Next Round,” host Adam Teeter is joined by Evan Burns and Mikael Taipale, co-founders of Long Drink. The canned beverage brand was built from a shared love for Long Drinks, a wildly popular category of alcoholic beverages in Finland, initially created for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
Burns and Taipale, who are American and Finnish, respectively, share the story of how they met, the passion they developed for the carbonated citrus and gin beverage, and why they decided to try to break into the U.S. market with a brand of their own. Investors, entrepreneurship, and future directions for the brand are also discussed.
Tune in and visit https://thelongdrink.com/ to learn more about Long Drink.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a VinePair “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations between our regular podcast episodes in order to give you a better picture of what’s going on in the alcohol beverage industry. Today, I’m talking with Evan and Mikael, two of the founders of the brand Long Drink. Guys, thanks for joining me.
Evan Burns: Thanks for having us.
Mikael Taipale: Thank you.
A: Before we jump into the whole business, I’m assuming some people who listen to the pod may be familiar with the brand, but others are not. So, what is Long Drink?
M: I’ll start with the background. Long Drink is an alcoholic beverage, originally from Finland. It’s a drink that’s been around here for almost 70 years now. Originally, it was invented for the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki because the government was concerned about how we would serve alcohol quickly enough to all the tourists. They created a beverage that was quick to serve. People fell in love and have been drinking it ever since. It’s a big deal here in Finland. We became involved in this because we became friends with Evan, and we were thinking about how to get this to the U.S. We decided to finally bring this to the U.S. a couple of years ago. So it’s a canned alcoholic beverage.
A: OK, cool. Is it lower in alcohol or higher in alcohol? Where does it fit into this new space of concoctions we’re seeing all over the place?
E: I think that’s the interesting thing about Long Drink. In Finland, it’s not viewed as a niche player. It’s the biggest drink there. As the American co-founder, when I went to visit Mikael and my other co-founders in Finland, we were doing all of these different activities. Whether it was a white-tablecloth restaurant, a dive bar, or at home and going to the sauna or swimming: During all these different activities people were drinking Long Drinks. It’s just huge. The best analogy I can use is, when you think of alcohol brands and a country, a lot of times we’ll think about Guinness to the Irish. Long Drinks to Finns are way bigger — 10 times bigger, based on the actual consumption by the native population. It’s just a massive thing. We thought that the taste profile and the story was something that could be interesting to Americans because it’s not a copycat innovation product. It’s not trying to satisfy a niche occasion or a niche dietary need. It’s something that just tastes great to a large profile of people and seems to be interesting in all occasions in Finland. We thought, let’s try it here. When we brought it here, we didn’t try to shoehorn it into one specific use case. We just put it out there and said, “Let’s see what happens.” Frankly, we’re not industry guys. We don’t know. We put it out there and the consumers really spoke. While very few people knew about it when we launched it, within a few months, those people were mega-fans and it was a go-to drink across occasions. Men, women, and all different types of backgrounds were drinking it. That’s what really made us excited and we thought, “Gosh, this could be a real business that could exist across the U.S. More importantly, a really iconic brand and product that people in the U.S. seem to enjoy.”
A: What’s the flavor profile?
E: It’s interesting. We call it citrus soda with real liquor. It’s hard to explain because it’s sort of its own thing. The biggest analogy that we get in the U.S. is that it tastes like a boozy Fresca. The net promoter score is +91. That’s hard to get in any food, let alone in an alcohol. Our main advice when people ask, “what’s the profile?” We try not to get too wordy and just generally push it across the table and say, “Give it a try.”
A: How did you all come to work together in the first place? You have two other companies, right? So, how did you guys meet up and decide to do this?
E: The story on our website is actually true. On thelongdrink.com, there’s a story tab, and people can read that to learn how everybody came together. I was running a media and tech company several years ago and growing that. We were hosting a drinks get-together mixer for entrepreneurs and people that worked in startups. Somehow, one of my friend’s interns was Finnish and had some other Finnish friends he wanted to invite that were in the U.S. studying. That night, my now co-founders came into the apartment. We became friends. There were several other events that I invited them to and, over time, we built a real bond. I think we’re very like-minded about entrepreneurship and hard work. I really appreciated the Finnish culture, too, and they ended up inviting me to Finland. I made the trip to Finland at some point within the year after meeting them. As they were giving me the natural introduction to these fun, Finnish cultural things, everything was done while drinking these things called Long Drinks. That’s when I realized, “Wow, this is really great.” Our preclusion towards entrepreneurship turned into the idea that this could be a fun thing to start. At the beginning, we thought, let’s use some of the known U.S. venture investors. Let’s bring them on board and have our Finnish co-founders come to the U.S. and pursue that American dream of having an idea, planting a seed, and having it grow. A lot of people said it was crazy. Both folks in Finland, but also in the U.S. said it was crazy. We didn’t own the space. Nobody knew what this product was. There was no description of what a Long Drink is in the U.S. It was a big hill to climb. We knew that. I think we were, frankly, dumb enough to give it a shot while not knowing all the specifics of this industry. We gave it a shot and, while we still have a lot to learn, it’s been a fun road.
A: Are you still involved with The Odyssey?
E: I’m not.
A: You were still there when you were in the process of starting this brand, right?
E: Yes, that’s right.
A: Did you see your access to that audience as something that you could use and as a way to help expand long-term? Have you taken advantage of that at all?
E: Yeah, it’s a great question. For those that don’t know, we built The Odyssey, which is the largest college and millennial website with 30 million monthly active users. We made all of our money from advertisers like PepsiCo, Victoria’s Secret, Red Bull Media House, and others who paid for advertising. The question we asked ourselves was, how do you get 18 to 25-year-olds excited about advocating for a brand? And again, this is with Odyssey, so not all alcohol-based. We learned a lot there and I thought, if we can take some things we’ve learned about how to get an influential demographic to try and advocate for something, we can probably apply those learnings to Long Drink. At the beginning, in the early days of Long Drink, my co-founder at Odyssey also helped in a consultative way. We thought through how to not go super wide and try to reach everybody. We decided, let’s not launch in every state. Let’s not try to be in every door at the same point. Let’s go to a few very targeted geographies. It ended up being parts of Manhattan and Montauk, out in the Hamptons.
A: Interesting. So that was it? You didn’t even think about the West Coast or anything, just parts of Manhattan and Montauk?
E: No. We thought, “Let’s be neighborhood-focused. Let’s see if we can actually create density.” At Odyssey, what worked is that we saw that any brand that wanted to really change how consumers talked about it, they had to go deep within a specific audience and own that conversation. Too often, brands just try to be everywhere. There’s over 300 million Americans. It doesn’t matter how much money you have — it’s really hard to control that. Going deep in a specific audience or geography is the only way we saw it working for Odyssey. That’s what we’ve done with Long Drink. We’re No. 1 in the category in Nevada. We’re No. 1 in the category in Georgia. Those are two of our four earliest states because we just went very deep and focused.
A: When you say category, what category do you mean?
E: Canned spirits.
A: Caned spirits. Does that put you against the High Noons of the world and stuff like that?
E: That’s right.
A: Interesting. Wow, that’s great. You’re No. 1 in category in how many states right now?
E: Just those two. Nevada and Georgia. There’s a whole plethora where we’re in that second place and moving up.
A: Oh, interesting. Did you pick those markets strategically? Was there the thought of, “Let’s go hard in Atlanta, let’s go hard in Vegas?”
E: Yes. Some of it was opportunistic, too. Mikael, maybe you can talk about Nevada a little bit.
M: Yeah. One thing I want to add about New York is that New York made sense in the beginning. It is a very independent market where you have corner stores where you can walk in and sell any brand. Going into the large chain states, if you don’t really exist as a brand, you don’t have any real chances to go into Walmarts and Targets right away. Building the brand and getting some proof of concept in places like New York, where you can knock on the doors of these liquor stores and start getting your initial data and sell-through, was important for us. That’s what we were doing day-to-day. We knocked on doors and got people to taste the product. Taste is really what matters with this drink. When you get liquid to lips, that’s really what makes a difference.
A: That makes a lot of sense. When you finally decided you were going to start bringing this brand to the U.S. — to get back a little bit to the fundraising conversations, because people get really curious about that — how did you take the product to investors? How did you get certain investors involved? I’ve heard Miles Teller’s name bandied around by people. How did you bring on people like that? Tell us about that so we can understand what you thought you needed to do next in order to build the funds to really build the brand in the U.S.
M: For the three of us who are Finns on the team, our background is in finance. We weren’t really entrepreneurs at the time. We’d gone to universities, gotten our master’s degrees in finance, and went on to do very regular finance jobs in consulting or banking. All that we had done before were pitch decks, business plans, and strategies for other brands and companies.This time, obviously, the initial step was to build our own business plan, pitch deck, and see what strategy made sense. That’s a lot of what we were doing in the beginning. Evan, having already founded one company and having some connections and experience from raising funds, was a good combination for us to have. We were able to tag team and see if people would get interested.
A: Did you raise the funds only from U.S. investors, or, because you have connections in Finland, did you raise internationally as well?
M: It was in the U.S. It was funny because there probably would be a lot of people in Finland who would be interested. Somehow, though, the Finnish culture is slightly more pessimistic. Every Finn has had this idea of bringing Long Drinks to the U.S. for the last 20 years. Nobody has really had the courage and or has been crazy enough to actually try it. The U.S. has a lot more capital out there. There’s a lot more of a willingness to take risks than in Finland. The initial capital did come from the U.S. Since then, we have brought on some Finnish investors as well.
A: Wow. Did you guys bootstrap it initially? One of the questions I get from some of our listeners who are interested in starting their own drinks brands is, do you need to have the drink first and have some proven sales? Or, can I raise from just the idea? Obviously, this has a rich history in Finland. We’ve established that. Whether or not it could work in the U.S. is such a crapshoot. Did you guys bootstrap it yourselves in the beginning and start selling in Manhattan and Montauk to prove it would work? Or, were you able to raise some funds first?
M: We did both. We did raise initial capital before starting anything, because getting into production and figuring out the regulatory things needs to already have capital. We did raise some capital. But as you said, we had an easy way to pitch the idea because it is an existing drink. The taste and the liquid is already an extremely popular drink in Finland. We didn’t have to prove that people like this drink, obviously, but we did have to prove whether Americans like this drink as much as people do in Finland. That was the unknown. If you could believe that the people in America could like it like the Finns do, then it would be a pretty easy sell. We had some initial tries before we even went to pitch anything. Evan had some connections in the industry, and we did a small sample test of all of our connections. We had them try some Long Drink and asked them, do you think this would be viable in the U.S. as well? Do you think Americans would like this?
A: When you say in the industry, do you mean the drinks industry?
A: Cool. That makes sense. So, how did you wind up bringing on some of these more high-profile people? Were they people who had consumed the drink and then became friends? Or were you connected to them through other investors?
E: The story on thelongdrink.com is true. A lot of times there’s made-up marketing about “celebrities” being involved. All of these celebrities that are investors in the business became investors because they love the product. It was sort of a step function. You have one person who likes it, ours was Miles Teller. He then gifts it to his friends. They like it. Some of them say they’d like to be involved. Some of their audience might have something that’s interesting to us, so we allow them to invest. That’s been a step function over time. One of the things that we got lucky in and did right was that we were very liberal with budgets around gifting product to people. If you have a product that’s good and you have confidence in it, that old “liquid to lips” adage just works really well.
A: How many SKUs are there of Long Drink?
M: We only have four.
A: Are there plans for more?
M: Yes, there is. There are a plethora of options out there and there are different variations of Long Drink in Finland that we could bring or create new ones from. Our main goal, right now, is not to create a lot of variation in the flavors. We feel like there’s so much more white space for these existing core flavors and SKUs in the U.S. that we want to focus on. We’ll look at different variations in packaging and flavoring down the road. For us, it is a very different type of product compared to seltzers, for example, where it is all about variety. For us, Long Drink is a more rich product in history. It all comes down to that one drink that was invented in the ’50s. We want to tell that story. We don’t want the customer to be confused about millions of different flavors, but rather, we want to make sure that they understand the history and the story of the traditional Long Drink as well.
A: That makes a lot of sense. Online, you guys are pushing people to either use Drizly or pick up locally, but you do sell Long Drink anywhere in the country via FedEx. How much has that direct-to-consumer business been part of the plan, and how much does it represent in terms of your sales? I know a lot of people are very focused on DTC when it comes to alcohol. Was that something you were focused on from the beginning, or did Covid influence it? I’m very curious about that.
E: I think we might be contrarian, a little bit, on this. It’s something that we certainly think is important. Having a situation where the consumer can find your product as easily as possible is key. We’ve worked to get on all these platforms and make it accessible, but it feels like the consumer really is discovering new products most often when they’re on their existing journey — whether that’s in a convenience store, liquor store, or bar. Honestly, almost all of our effort — 99-plus percent — is going into ways we expand distribution and, then, presence in that distribution. Our viewpoint is that that’s probably the best return on dollars and time and it’s easy to break out of the noisy pack online. That being said, though, we certainly love those platforms and love to be available on them. They’ve been nice to grow. But, we probably have not made that a priority like a lot of the other earlier-stage alcohol companies have.
A: Interesting. I’ve definitely seen you in lots of stores. I think that ground game is definitely working for you. Where do you see the business in the next three to five years? What’s the goal? I’m sure you hear that question a lot, especially from investors, but I had to ask it.
M: The first step is to just continue expanding the presence in the existing states. There’s so much more white space left in our existing 15 states. The next obvious step is to expand to the remaining states in the U.S. We still have quite a few states where we’re not located yet. We’re planning to launch those within the next six months or so. There’s going to be a lot of expansion geographically. We’ll also just be continuing to increase the penetration in our existing states.
A: Interesting. Would the goal be to ultimately have Long Drink acquired? Would you want to build a business where you could launch other drinks brands? Have you had those conversations yet? Have you thought about that at all?
E: I think our goal is that we think this can be an iconic brand that lasts. I think one of the challenges is that, of the 400-plus brands that have come out in the past two years, it’s hard to differentiate why they are going to last for a few decades.
E: This concept has lasted in Finland for 70 years through many brands there. We think we can really build, or at least be the launch pad, for something that can be an iconic, staying brand that’s differentiated and unique and that people like. I think that’s the goal.
A: Cool. I will say that the brand is very cool. The liquid is very tasty. I think you guys are on to something really awesome. The amount of success that you’ve had so quickly, so early, to be No. 1 in category in some of those states is really impressive. Congratulations to you guys.
E: Thanks. We appreciate it. We have a lot to learn, but we’re having fun so far.
A: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining me today, and I appreciate all your time.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.